Acting White, Part III–One More Look at the Data

February 25, 2007

My acting white posts (here and here) inspired some thoughtful and nuanced responses, which are all available below the original posts.

I wonder whether we are all to quick to accept Fryer’s central conclusion, though. He says:

My analysis confirms that acting white is a vexing reality within a subset of American schools.

But when you look more closely at Fryer’s evidence, it isn’t so clear. The basic thrust of Fryer’s findings are that black students get more popular with their peers as their grades rise. This is true up to a 3.5 GPA. So, even at integrated schools, blacks with a 3.5 GPA (which is pretty good stuff, even if not at the very top of the class) are more popular than those with lower grades. Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t that show the opposite of the acting white thesis?

Here’s how Fryer puts it (slightly edited):

Although African Americans with GPAs as high as 3.5 continue to have more friends than those with lower grades, the rate of increase is no longer as great as among white students.

The experience of black and white students diverges as GPAs climb above 3.5. As the GPAs of black students increase beyond this level, they tend to have fewer and fewer friends. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer friends of the same ethnicity than a white student with the same GPA. Put differently, a black student with straight As is no more popular than a black student with a 2.9 GPA, but high-achieving whites are at the top of the popularity pyramid.

So, what’s the upshot of all of this: white students get more popular as their grades approach 4.0, but that is not true for blacks, at least in integrated schools. That supports the acting white thesis. But the fact that black student popularity grows as their GPA’s approach 3.5 seems to cut in the other direction. Taken together these 2 findings suggest that the relationship between grades and status among your peers is quite complicated–certainly more complicated than the simple claim that black kids denigrate academic achievement as acting white.


3 Responses to “Acting White, Part III–One More Look at the Data”

  1. allen Says:

    “In Search of an Answer” on page six came close to explaining the observed phenomena as being due to group identity dynamics.

    Group dynamics explains nicely the differences in the social value of academic achievement. In a school with a very small percentage of white kids there isn’t enough of the “other” group to represent a threat. Defection by “acting white” isn’t an important consideration because there’s nowhere to defect too. If the percentage of black kids is too low there’s not enough of a group to enforce group cohesion. It’d be only in the middle ground that group dynamics could assert itself.

    The solution is to place a cost on group membership that outweighs the benefits. In America at large that solution is called “the melting pot” and the metaphor is apt.

    When any identifiable group hits Ellis Island or venues inland on of the first things that forms is a “little”. A Little Italy, Chinatown, Mexican Village, Poletown, etc.

    At first there’s value in huddling together. It’s easier to do business with people who speak your language, share your customs and history. But by the second, certainly the third, generation that value’s offset by the cost.

    If you insist on going to a Polish-speaking doctor you don’t have that many to choose from. If you insist on buying from Spanish-speaking shopkeepers you may not get the best bargains and in all respects the big world outside the self-imposed ghetto beckons.

    Group cohesion breaks down as the line between the group and the greater society blurs and the value of the group declines both absolutely and relatively.

    Finally, you end up with just the remnants of group identity. The St. Paddies day parades in which everyone is Irish or the Cinco de Mayo celebration which is good fun for all but no longer an affirmation of group membership.

    There’s already pretty clear evidence of the breakdown of black identity group politics in the political sphere.

    The Congressional Black Caucus refuses to allow membership by elected representatives who clearly share racial characteristics with the members of the caucus but not political characteristics. When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas enters a room there isn’t much doubt about the continent of his parentage but he’s not “authentically” black. The new value of “authenticness” is clearly less about racial identity and more about political affiliation. Barack Obama is a milestone figure as much because of his distinctly leftwing pronouncements as his skin color.

    Group identity takes a back seat to the exercise and retention of political power and longer term that’s erosive of the value of group identity. If you’re politics make you insufficiently authentic to satisfy the Congressional Black Caucus then the division is along political not racial lines.

    To paraphrase Murray Gell-Mann, if the melting pot isn’t prohibited, it’s required.

  2. Here's my guess Says:

    Isn’t the simple answer that “fitting in” is different than “representing an independent-minded threat”? There is a difference between “he is one of us who travels well in many contexts” and “he is a unique individual who can make his own rules”.

  3. Ericka Says:

    this is sad but not unexpected. most americans want to follow the crowd and the same is so of african americans. if most african americans at a certain school have low gpas then more kids will have friends with lower gpas and the same study habits. this is where encouragement and rewards from teachers and staff come in to further engage student who could do better if they apply themselves.

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